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It’s been two months since he’s left Konoha, about a month since he’s last seen a village, and about a week since he’s even seen a house.

And about a half hour since he’s last seen Naruto.

When he’d said goodbye two months ago, Sasuke had thought that would be the end of it. Meeting his former comrades (and Naruto) again would happen at a time of his own choosing. Alone, he would be granted both space and time to… see the world with unclouded eyes, see light that had up until recently been missing from his life. But, again, he had assumed he would be doing this alone.

He should have known better than to think Naruto would ever let that happen. If Sasuke hadn’t changed in his desire for solitude, why would Naruto ever change in letting that far off dream come true?

Sasuke first noticed him about a week ago, back by the small farm stall along the road he’d stopped in for supplies. At first, he’d thought he’d imagined the presence of his chakra. Loathe as he was to admit it, Naruto had been on his mind more than once during his travels. Though a stretch, it was entirely possible that in his preoccupied state, his mind had conjured Naruto’s presence. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The second time he’d caught sight of him was the very next night. Just as he had been settling into his small camp, miles away from any other living soul, Naruto’s chakra had flared in the wasteland, bright and unmistakable.

Sasuke had frozen, tense, keeping his already suppressed chakra close to his core, waiting. But nothing ever came, and Naruto didn’t dare to show his face yet, so Sasuke had eventually drifted into a fitful sleep.

After that, the “sightings” grew in frequency, day by day, hour by hour. Today, he’s counted at least eight different occasions that he had either caught a brief flash of blonde hair, or a spark of Naruto’s chakra since he’d risen and packed up camp.

Needless to say, his patience is wearing thin.

It’s as he’s setting up camp for the night that he feels Naruto’s presence again, this time closer than ever. If he’s right, Naruto’s no further away than just behind the copse of trees to his back.

Coincidentally, this is also the exact moment that Sasuke’s patience snaps.

His body moves like clockwork, muscle memory pushing the motions step by step--pouch, shuriken, and a forceful toss towards the tree Naruto is so obviously hiding in.

The telltale squawk is all he needs to confirm that Naruto really is there, and then his face pops out from behind a cluster of leaves, flushed and scrunched up in displeasure.

“Hey, hey, Sasuke, you didn’t have to throw those so close, you know,” he says, indignant.

Relaxing his stance, Sasuke snorts and watches as Naruto takes a (surprisingly) graceful leap for the ground below. “If you didn’t want to get hit, hide yourself better.”

He scowls at that, shaking a few misplaced leaves from his shoulders, before drawing closer--close enough that Sasuke can see he hasn’t bathed in about as long as he’s been following him, and there are deep circles under his eyes. “How long did you know I was there?” he asks, sheepishly.

“About a week,” Sasuke answers, honestly.

“Huh, really?” he asks, blinking in surprise. It’s almost as if he isn’t aware of how terrible he is at being a ninja.

“Yes,” he scoffs, and turns back to where he had begun setting up camp. If he wasn’t so annoyed about Naruto’s sudden presence, he might have felt a wave of nostalgia for their days as genin. They had shared plenty of similar skirmishes before hunkering down for the night, but with less grace and far less accuracy.

Naruto hesitates behind him, and Sasuke can feel his eyes on the back of his neck as he finishes setting up the camp. Originally, he had only planned on it being just his bedroll, but with Naruto’s presence, he supposes he might have to get a fire going and a hot meal to go with it. He can only imagine the fuss if otherwise. That is… if Naruto really hadn’t changed since the last time they’d been in the same space like this.

He decides not to dwell too long on that thought.

The silence drags on as Sasuke begins to set up a fire. It’s uncharacteristic of Naruto, really, and by now he almost expects to have heard about every detail of Naruto’s life since they’d parted, or at least an explanation for why he’s here, but he remains silent, watching Sasuke with soft, tentative eyes.

He doesn’t like it. Silence has never been an unwelcome presence in his life, ever, but he supposes the exception could be made in Naruto’s case. The silence is overwhelming, unnatural. It pounds against Sasuke’s head, a million fists hammering against his skull in rapid succession. It’s more than he can take.

“If you’re going to be here, you can at least bring back my shuriken,” he says at last.

“What? You threw them! Get them yourself, bastard.” His face twists into a scowl that Sasuke is much more familiar with.

He only shrugs in response, but makes no move to get them himself, instead removing a pot and two of the food packs he’d been carrying with him. As expected, it doesn’t take long for Naruto to lose patience, and he grunts loudly before the sounds of rustling leaves means he’s gone and retrieved them. He throws the metal stars back, sharp and direct, but Sasuke expects this and moves just out of their way so they land with a soft thunk into the dirt beside him.

He says nothing, instead continues to get dinner set up, and with a quick flare of his chakra, he starts a small fire. It had taken some time to learn jutsu one-handed, but now that he’s gotten the hang of it, the flames come forth from his lungs with ease, lighting the small pile of twigs in an instant. Naruto is sitting beside him moments later, lip jutting forward as he sulks. “You totally could have gotten that yourself,” he pouts.

Ignoring him, Sasuke continues to focus on their dinner, eyeing the broth suspiciously. It’s unfortunately of the instant variety, but given his style of travel… it’s not realistic to carry an entire kitchen with him. Naruto watches as he cooks, falling into the unnerving silence again, bright eyes quiet with thought. It envelopes them both, surrounding their small camp in a quiet thicker than the earliest morning fog.

And just when Sasuke can’t bear it any longer, just when he decides it’s about time he ask Naruto what he’s doing here, demand why, and how--

“Sasuke,” Naruto says, quiet, and there’s a sincerity, an emotion so deep in his voice and in his name that Sasuke hasn’t heard since the valley, since the time they had both lost their arms, since the time they had almost killed each other, since--“Sasuke, I want to see the world with you.”

He feels something deep in the pit of his stomach tighten. Oh. “No,” he says, and he’s almost surprised at how even and normal his voice sounds, like there isn’t a flurry of mixed emotions scrambling his brain into a fine mush right now.

“I wasn’t exactly asking, damn it.” The opening in Naruto’s voice grows wider, raw, and he can tell that he’s trying to meet his eyes.

“And my answer is not up for debate,” he replies smoothly back, and keeps his gaze firmly on the broth in front of them. It bubbles, a welcome sound in the suddenly angry silence. He knows if he meets them, he’ll see too far into Naruto’s heart, too deep. “You know why I decided to travel,” he continues after a moment. “And you especially know why I decided to do it alone. I need to--”

“See the world with clear eyes, yeah yeah.” The disdain in Naruto’s voice is enough to spark Sasuke’s temper, and he snaps his head up to look at Naruto, lip curling up to say something far too nasty to be deserved, but Naruto’s already pushing forward, earnestly leaning forward and finally taking hold of Sasuke’s gaze. Shit. “Sasuke, I know why you want to travel, I know you want to see what it means to be a shinobi, how the world really looks, I know but… I… so do I.”

Sasuke releases a breath, searching deep into Naruto’s eyes for a moment, allowing himself to test the waters of that ocean, before shaking his head and turning back to the simmering pot. “Naruto, you of all people have always been clear about how you see the world and why. I left the village again not only to see the world with vision clear of… hate, but to understand your perspective, why you would protect the Leaf as fiercely as you did.”

“And I left the village to see yours!”

Sasuke stops, freezes in all motion, and a wave of guilt crashes over him, and icy sting that rushes across his whole body. Had Naruto not done just that for the last three years? Had he not time and again done his best to get inside his head, even despite Sasuke’s most violent retaliation? “Naruto--” he begins, but he’s interrupted before he can get another word out.

“Sasuke, something has to change,” Naruto says, “and truth be told I still… Being back in the village, it’s--” He makes a noise of frustration, squeezing his eyes shut and pulling at his greasy hair, as if tugging the golden strands will somehow loosen the ideas in his head. “I was never any good at explaining things, you know, but it hurts to be back there. It hurts that so many people act like nothing’s happened, like they didn’t--”

“Shun you your whole life?”


Sasuke gives him another long look. “I thought you’d forgiven them.”

“Well yes--no, sort of.” He makes another noise, almost like the sound of a dying cat, and drags his hands down his face, his nails leaving skid marks on his dirt-crusted skin. “I don’t think this is the answer I’ve been looking for, moving forward and pretending nothing happened to me, to-to you, forgiving everyone for the sake of peace.”

As Naruto continues to speak, something bubbles up in Sasuke’s chest, a familiar grief, violent and streaked red with anger. “So, you came to listen to what I had explained to you back then? Knowing it involved your death?”

“No!” Naruto says, instant in his rejection. “I don’t want to die or anything. Those times you stabbed me really hurt, you know. I don’t need a refresher course any time soon.”

Sasuke flinches at that, returning his focus to the pot in front of him. “But you came to see why I felt that way, feel this way?”

“I already know why you feel the way you do,” he says, and Sasuke bristles at the self-assured confidence in his voice. Could he really know? But he knows the answer to that already, and while it’s not a complete yes, Naruto has been the only one to ever see himself in Sasuke, to ever understand him. “And I still don’t think your answer is the right one,” Naruto presses. “Nagato’s wasn’t, yours wasn’t, mine isn’t… but--”

“Do you have a bowl?” Sasuke interrupts, ignoring the look Naruto is giving him.

“A wh--well yeah, b--”

“Hand it over.” Sasuke holds out an expectant hand (his only hand), and he watches as Naruto fusses around in his own pack before procuring a small wooden bowl. Sasuke takes it and balances it in his lap before spooning the hot broth into it, careful not to spill. Then he hands it back, careful to avoid Naruto’s eyes again, before helping himself to his own dinner.

“Sasuke,” Naruto starts, but he shakes his head.

“Just eat,” he insists, and begins to gently sip at his own meal. He doesn’t have to glance over at Naruto to know the look he’s giving him could send him careening through the woods with its sheer force, but he settles in and eats anyway. Naruto’s words ricochet in his skull, too fast that he can barely process a single one. It’s only when he can feel the warmth spreading in his belly, like a cat curling on top of him to take its afternoon nap, that he breaks the silence.

“This journey is not just about seeing the world, Naruto,” he says, and again dares to meet his gaze once more. “Part of this is because yes, I can’t quite manage to look at everyone’s smiling faces just yet, to walk in a fabricated peace that was built on blood--my blood. And part of it is because I know my answer was wrong, and I know I--” The grief bubbles up again, but it’s different, the anger doesn’t come with it, just pure, unfiltered grief. Sasuke grits his teeth. “Part of this is to atone for what I’ve done.”

Naruto looks at him like he always does--part like he wants to open his mouth and call Sasuke something along the lines of “a steaming pile of shit” and part like he’s eating up each and every one of Sasuke’s words. He feels like a young genin again, and for a moment, the face of a twelve year old boy, bright-eyed and yammering on about the Ichiraku he’d had the night before, hovers over Naruto’s features.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Naruto says, and the moment is broken just like that.

Sasuke opens his mouth, intending to tell Naruto that maybe if he’d grown more than half a brain he’d know none of what he’d just said was stupid, but Naruto, as always, bulldozes ahead. “If you wanted to atone for the things you did, you would have stayed in the village, or you would have gone over to Kumogakure and talked with Octopops. Talked to that redhead girl you traveled with all the time...” Naruto inhales, and his breath goes in shaky. It’s his turn to avoid Sasuke’s gaze. “You would have stayed with me, Sasuke. But this? You’re just running away again. But uh… maybe more literally this time.” He laughs a bit at that, like he’s hoping he softened the blow because the stupid idiot doesn’t know how to keep things totally serious, no matter the weight of the truth he delivers.

“This isn’t running away,” Sasuke protests, but there’s no push behind it. Not even he really believes it.

Naruto snorts, shaking his head, and then takes a particularly audible gulp of soup before continuing. Sasuke watches as the broth trickles down the side of his mouth. It’s all he can do right now, all he can manage to process. “Sasuke, didn’t we say all those months ago that we know each other’s hearts? Huh? That we understand each other? You can’t fool me, you know.”

He jabs the finger of his right hand in Sasuke’s direction, and before Sasuke can look away, can escape the power of that gaze, Naruto’s blue eyes have him locked, the waves of that ocean pulling him further and further out to sea. He sucks a sharp breath through his teeth, to say something, to turn Naruto’s words away before they even start, but nothing comes out, and a tender smile creeps over Naruto’s face. “I’m not letting you be alone ever again.”

And suddenly they’re both in the valley again, lying side to side, hurting, dying, nothing but their hearts to bear to the world all over again, and Sasuke has to catch his breath, hold back the tears that threaten to well up just like before. The surety of Naruto’s desire to be there, the consistency of his presence, no matter the circumstances, the eternal warmth that he has radiated for him, just for him--it’s all too much.

And of course, because Naruto understands him, knows his heart, knows that words won’t come just yet, his smile widens just a little, and he reaches over to rest his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “So, I’m coming with you. And we’ll find our answer. Together.”

Their gazes remain interlocked, twisted together for what seems like hours but in reality is only the briefest of moments, and if Sasuke didn’t know any better, he’d swear Naruto had learned genjutsu just to trap him. He can’t help but smile back--small, hesitant, but a smile nevertheless as Naruto guides him back to shore.

Gingerly, he reaches up and takes Naruto’s hand from his shoulder, holds it in his grasp for a moment, feels the surprising warmth it radiates, savors it, and then drops it, lets it swing back to Naruto’s side.

“You can tag along,” he says at last, and lifts his bowl back to his lips, “if you promise to bathe regularly.”

“I wasn’t asking permission, remember?” Naruto shoots back, falling immediately into their usual banter, and sheepishly ruffles his grease-ridden hair. “And it’s hard to find places to bathe this far out in the wilderness, you know, Sasuke.”

“Something tells me you weren’t looking hard enough,” he says, and pulls out his sleeping pack. Naruto does the same, scowling at him but nevertheless putting aside his finished dinner to begin setting up his own sleeping arrangements. The sun is now nothing more than a fiery sliver on the horizon, shining its last light on the world before the moon took its place for the evening.

The silence is comfortable now, like old times, but more personal, closer, like they’d crossed a bridge neither of them had known existed, and now they stand together on the other side. It’s a feeling Sasuke is entirely unfamiliar with, but… welcomes it nonetheless.

Settling into his sleeping bag, he watches as Naruto squirms into his with all the grace of a butterfly trying to return to its chrysalis, thinks of the countless nights ahead of him that will be just the same as this one. He catches Sasuke watching, and makes a face back, scrunching his nose up in obvious distaste. “What?”

“That’s new,” he says, and makes a vague gesture towards Naruto’s right arm.

“Wh-oh yeah. Granny and Sakura finished our arms a month or so back. Pretty neat, huh?” He wiggles his fingers, as if to demonstrate its effectiveness, and then starts digging in his pack with it. “I brought yours, too,” he continues, and makes a noise of frustration before all but sticking his entire head into the bag.

Sasuke finds himself holding back a laugh as he watches, shaking his head. “Keep it, Naruto. I’m fine as I am.”

His head pops back out of the bag, golden hair more ruffled than ever, and now holding a far too wiggly looking arm-shaped… thing. “Huh? What am I supposed to do with this then? I carried it all the way out here, you know, and arms are no small weight!” He shakes the arm in Sasuke’s direction as if to prove just how heavy it is. It wriggles like a limp noodle, lifeless and… far too gelatinous in nature for Sasuke to be able to stomach having it connected to his body, or… even near him for that matter.

With a grimace, Sasuke turns onto his other side, facing away from Naruto, and settles further into his sleeping bag. “Fertilizer.”

“Fertilizer?” he squawks, incredulous, and Sasuke grunts in affirmation. There’s the sound of muttering, and Sasuke catches a few curses in his direction before the rustling of his sleeping bag, and then the quick foum! as Naruto puts out the fire with a short burst of chakra.

And then all that remains are the chittering of the woods around them, and Naruto’s soft and even breathing to his left.

Chapter Text

The morning sun stirs Sasuke awake as it usually does, warmth seeping into his cheekbones and driving away the night’s cold air. Usually, he doesn’t move for at least an hour longer, allowing himself the one luxury of easing into the waking world, but this particular morning is different. Now, he also wakes to the soft sound of snoring drifting towards him from his left.

Blearily, he opens his eyes, blinks a few times to clear the accumulated dust, and lets them adjust to the early morning light. The dim haze of the camp eventually focuses into the single image of Naruto, dead to the world. His mouth hangs open, a fly trap so perfect only he could pull it off, and he’s tossed enough in his sleep that his blankets are scattered around his person. Cradled in his arms is the pillow he’d been resting his head on, and on the trunk of the tree closest to him now rests his head.

If Naruto is the same as he had been as a genin, Sasuke is sure he’ll hear about how much his neck hurts for the rest of the day.


None of that can possibly be real.

It’s not that he’d forgotten about the night before, but rather in the moments between sleep and wakefulness, he’d convinced himself that it had all been a dream. It wasn’t too far of a stretch for Naruto to come following after him--no, that’s something he’s all but come to expect.

But to hear from Naruto’s own lips the confirmation of Konoha’s crimes, his realization that his forgiveness did not run as deep as he had previously thought, to hear Naruto admit that perhaps Sasuke’s plans, though perhaps unhinged at the time, held a ring of truth… that was not something he had expected.

Part of him, he realizes as his eyes trail the whiskers of Naruto’s face, is angry. Part of him demands to know why Naruto had not come to this realization sooner--why, if Naruto supposedly knew his heart so well, had he not said all of this sooner? Why had the thought kept him up at night, after he had fought Danzo? Why had he laid awake, sleepless in darkness while Itachi’s eyes had adjusted to his body in agonizing slowness, thinking only that Naruto’s absence hurt?

But the other part of him, the part that he knows is more reasonable, the part that is as in tune with Naruto’s heart as Naruto is with his, knows that this is unfair. He had been spiraling deep into a well that Naruto could not follow--he had made sure no one could descend into its depths but himself, especially Naruto. And just as he had been strung along by Itachi, by Orochimaru, by Tobi, by Madara, so too had Naruto been strung along by Konoha, strung along into the so-called Will of Fire. How could Naruto have betrayed the village he had been taught to care for so deeply?

But… what did any of that matter? Here, now, in this moment, Naruto is here with him, is here not to pull him back into the flames of Konoha, but to find a way to put them out--the right way.


Disturbed from his thoughts, he touches back down to reality, immediately finding himself ensnared in Naruto’s sleepy, hooded gaze. He’s half awake, only just barely able to focus on Sasuke’s face, but he’s managed to curl back into his blankets, and the pillow is once again under his head. He reminds Sasuke of a cat that’s just been woken up, lazy curiosity swimming in the light of his eyes.

“What?” Naruto presses again. “You’re looking at me funny.”

Caught in the act, he turns away and pulls himself out of his own bedding. “You’re uglier than I remember,” he says by way of explanation, and then starts to gather his things.

“Huh?” comes the offended grunt, and then there’s the harsh whisper of skin against fabric as Naruto struggles to get out from his bed. “You take that back!”

“Maybe it’s because you haven’t bathed,” Sasuke says, feigning innocence, and he pointedly tugs on a shoe as he looks back at Naruto, who is furiously tugging on his own like his life depends on it.

“And maybe you smell like old fish,” he snipes back. “That’s why it was so easy to find you, Sasuke. I could smell you all the way from Konoha.” He bats at the air mockingly, the irritation that had just been twisting his face stretching into a mocking smile.

“The only one that smells like old fish is you,” Sasuke snaps back. He’ll never admit that the next big breath he takes is less a put upon sigh and more to check if Naruto’s words are true, just in case (he does not smell like old fish, for the record). “There’s a river about a mile from here, due east. We’ll head there first.”

The look that Naruto gives him is all too reminiscent of the looks Sasuke had seen him wear in their genin days moments before he had pulled some terrible prank. It screams of adolescent crimes and an angry Iruka, a scream Sasuke is none too fond of. He slings his pack over his shoulder, still maintaining his solid eye contact with him, and grins, bright and wide.

“What?” Sasuke asks, eyes narrowed and voice laced with suspicion. Briefly, he wonders if maybe Naruto had purposefully filled his bag with fish in the late hours of the night, just so that he could have a moment of victorious satisfaction. Ridiculous, but he finds himself reaching for his pack--

“Race you,” is the only warning he gets before Naruto is off, leaping into the trees above with grace more suited to a cat than any ninja Sasuke has ever seen.

A fire immediately ignites in his chest, a fire he hasn’t felt flare to life in months. And even then, it had burned so angrily, flickered so violently it had felt as though his heart was going to crumble to ash. But this… it had not burned like this, warm and bright and invigorating since… since the chunin exams, when he had looked Naruto in the eyes and declared his desire to face him, man to man, genin to genin.

He bursts forward, explosive energy pushing him into the treetops.

Ahead, Naruto is now an orange blur, blending into the autumn hues of the forest surrounding them. Normally, Sasuke might scoff at the bright and obvious colors of such an outfit, but for the moment it suits Naruto well, blending him into his surroundings with ease. For the moment, the forest is as bright as he is.

He’s not too far ahead, at least not too far Sasuke can’t catch up, if not surpass him, but something absolutely smug feeds the flame in his chest, and he opens his left eye just a little wider.

The chakra builds, presses against his nerves, and then he releases it, and the rinnegan pushes Sasuke into Naruto’s space and flings Naruto back into his. There’s a startled cry from behind him as Naruto realizes just what he’s done, and then a string of obscenities at his back float into his eardrums, furious about the injustice of it all. It tugs a laugh out of his chest, a satisfied one, but a laugh all the same, and then the river hovers into his view in the distance.

There’s no time to languish in such a brief victory though. If he knows anything about Naruto, and he hopes he still knows quite a lot, the backlash will be twofold, so he picks up the pace, Naruto’s cries of anger hovering in the distance.

He is, of course, the first to reach the shore, as expected, so he waits, patiently scanning the treeline for Naruto’s arrival. Victory is a harsh mistress, though, and he heaves a pained breath as the air burns at his lungs. When he’s finally caught his breath, it occurs to him that Naruto should have arrived long before he had been able to breathe evenly.

Silence rings around him, pressing closer, and for a brief moment, Sasuke considers that perhaps Naruto had somehow managed to get lost, even with the shore so close in sight. That would unfortunately be just in character for him, and a string of worry tugs at his heart.

That particular thought is about as short-lived as Naruto’s headstart though, as he feels something warm crash into his side, the sound of Naruto’s voice in his ear crying, “Cheater!” and the sudden feeling of being very cold, very wet, and very much submerged in the water of the river.

Blindly, he claws at the fabric of Naruto’s clothes, desperately trying to shove him off, but really only mildly succeeding at getting himself entangled in a mess of limbs, and oh God he is absolutely furious right now.

They breach the surface together in one collective breath, coughing water up from their lungs and desperately inhaling all the air they can get. Naruto’s still somehow laughing in his ear like he’s just pulled the funniest prank of his life, and Sasuke’s cursing as much as he possibly can between breaths before shoving Naruto off of him in half-hearted protest of this entire disaster of a situation.

“Dead last,” he grits out between his teeth as he drags himself towards the shore, “Our things are soaked now.”

Your things are soaked now. I left mine in the tree over there.” Naruto jerks his thumb over his shoulder, shit-eating grin cracking his face in two, and Sasuke truly hates him for it.

“Bastard,” he coughs up in response, and he kicks as much water at Naruto’s face as he possibly can before hauling himself onto the shore completely. Naruto only laughs, raising his arms to shield himself from Sasuke’s spiteful onslaught.

Furious, Sasuke begins fixing the disaster by shucking his pack into the sand, and then carefully removing his clothes. They cling to his skin uncomfortably, and he’s going to kill Naruto for every moment he has to endure feeling like he has a second set of skin. His shirt slogs off of him with a wet slap, and he must have made a face, because Naruto starts laughing at him again.

It earns him a reproachful glare, which only makes Naruto laugh more, so hard in fact that he falls back into the water and resurfaces, still chortling to himself. It takes all Sasuke has to not leap back in and throttle him with his bare hand, so instead he settles for digging in his (now soaked) pack, and lobbing a bar of soap at his head.

It hits the mark square in the middle of Naruto’s forehead, and he yells an indignant “ouch!” before watching the bar float about sullenly.

“Throw me your clothes,” Sasuke directs, ignoring his reproachful look, “and I’ll hang them to dry.”

Wordlessly, Naruto strips in the water, throwing his clothes with all the force he can muster at Sasuke’s face, but it doesn’t do him much good. Sasuke only catches them and begins hanging their things on a nearby set of branches, one by one, and prays silently that they’ll at least be comfortably dry by the time they’re clean.

Then he eases back into the water again, this time of his own volition, allowing his body to adjust to the temperature bit by bit, until he’s in up to his neck. Naruto’s already bubbly with soap, though it looks like he’s not being particularly thorough about where he scrubs, only generating the semblance of cleanliness. Patches of dirt and dust still cling to his face despite his multiple dips underwater, the only blemishes to his otherwise clear skin.

It’s that observation that stops Sasuke in his movements, has him staring at Naruto’s bare chest like he’s just seen another god. A mixture of awe and fear swirl in the pit of his stomach, and he feels the hairs on the back of his neck raise just ever so slightly. The feeling is akin to when he’d first seen that red chakra take shape, that first fight in the Valley of the End. Fear, awe, admiration, and a remarkable grief so deep in his chest that he’s not sure he can ever find the bottom.

Not a single mark marrs Naruto’s skin--not a scar, not a bruise, not a cut. His body, from tip to toe, is a clean slate. Logically, he assumes--no he knows it’s because of the nine tails. He knows that the raw mass of chakra in the pit of Naruto’s belly is pumping through his body, sealing even the slightest paper cut. And yet, he viscerally remembers all the times he’d pierced that skin, the warmth of Naruto’s blood and innards suffocating his hands and drenching his sword. Over and over.

Over. and over.

And over again.

Not a single piece of evidence of that final day, that final valley, remains on his body. The only inclination that anything happened to Naruto at all is the arm at his side, pale, artificial flesh a stark contrast to his dark skin. There’s no evidence of Sasuke’s past sins reflected back at him, like there is in so many other parts of his life. Like there is in the way his former teachers look at him, the way Kakashi had so easily resigned to kill him all those months ago. Like the scars that criss cross his body this way and that.

The only thing that has remained clean, unchanging, is Naruto.

Guilt seeps into his chest. Again. Not for his convictions. Not for the hatred of Konoha that still truly runs so deeply under his skin sometimes it feels as though lava itself has become his blood. No, for hurting his one and only friend, for taking his blood and suffering no repercussions for it.

“You’re looking at me funny again,” Naruto says, jarring him once more out of his thoughts.

“You suck at cleaning yourself up,” he mutters in response, and resists the urge to look away, deny himself eye contact. A coward’s way out. “If you’re not even going to do it properly, you can at least hand me the soap so I can clean myself.”

“I’m scrubbing so hard there’s skin peeling off,” Naruto protests, but he passes the bar of soap along anyway, flicking it to float towards Sasuke and pouting like he’s still twelve. He takes it, or Sasuke starts to anyway, just before he seizes the opportunity to dunk him as far under the water as he possibly can.

Bad idea, and he knows it. He’s started a war, and the first retaliation is a warm hand grabbing at his ankle and pulling him under, taking the soap with him. The world goes dark again, silence flooding his ears, the sounds of world drowned away and the only sensation is the warmth of Naruto’s hand leaving his ankle. Yes, better to relish in this moment, to forget about the past and to move on, move forward, to seek warmth, even if it involves dunking Naruto into the river water as many times as it takes to get that patch of dirt on his cheek off for good.

To be fair, he thinks to himself as he struggles to resurface once more, Naruto had dunked him first.

“Asshole,” Naruto splutters as they break the surface together again, and splashes a veritable sea worth of soapy river water back at him, to which Sasuke uses a jutsu he’s seen Suigetsu use on Karin more than once, and sends a wave over Naruto’s head again, smug.

It’s a good hour before they finally drag themselves out of the water, exhausted, pruny, laughter weakly escaping their water-filled lungs. The sand is a warm blanket on their bare backs, desperately clinging to their wet skin. It’s the first time in a long, long time that Sasuke can say he’s had fun.

“I win,” Naruto coughs pathetically, smiling ear to ear. He’s looking at Sasuke smugly, so self satisfied and assured of his own victory that he can’t help but smile back.

“As if,” he snorts. The scowl Naruto gives him is enough to kill ten, no twenty shinobi in an instant, and he rolls over to prop himself up and grab his clothes.

And once again, Sasuke is accosted with Naruto’s bare back, the smoothness of his skin. The nine tails had truly left nothing for Naruto to remember his enemies by. He wonders vaguely if all those years of training together had even managed to callus his remaining hand. Stupid question, of course it had. But still, the guilt seeps in through the cracks of his resolve, clammy and twisted in his head and in his chest. It writhes, a snake in his innards, a serpent so much more dangerous and painful than any he’s ever faced in his life, which, as it happens, is a whole fucking lot.

He dresses quickly, avoiding looking at Naruto until at last they’re both completely clothed, afraid to look at the body that, despite being bare, is still somehow criss crossed with scars.

“So where to next?” Naruto asks, zipping up his coat. Oblivious as always, but the sudden fondness for that naivete that overcomes Sasuke is enough to mask the twisted guilt in his chest. At least for the moment.

“I’ve been heading north,” Sasuke says. “If you hadn’t noticed from your week of traipsing behind me.”

“I wasn’t traipsing, whatever that means.” Grabbing his pack, Naruto looks at Sasuke with a somewhat sheepish expression. Embarrassed. “And uh, I guess I didn’t notice. I was too busy hiding, you know?”

“Because you did so well at that.” Allowing himself an eye roll, he grabs his own pack, tightening the fastens and ensuring its security before he goes leaping off. “I plan to go until late afternoon,” Sasuke says. “Can you handle that, or have all your months ‘healing’ at Ichiraku sapped your stamina?”

“Ichiraku hasn’t sapped shit!” Naruto snaps, rising to Sasuke’s smug taunt. “But… breakfast first would be nice.”

“We can eat on the way,” Sasuke says, and tosses Naruto a ration pack before leaping into the trees. The groan from behind him is the only answer he waits for, and then he’s pressing through the forest, intent on his goal ahead.

“And where,” Naruto asks in between mouthfuls, “exactly are we going?”

At that, Sasuke gives pause. Admittedly, he’s avoided this topic entirely, even with the little chance that he’s had to actually broach it. Something about saying it out loud, especially to Naruto, sets his teeth on edge. But he needs to get it out sometime, somehow. If he doesn’t, he knows that he will never truly be free, never truly own himself the way he’s desperate to.

It’s with great effort that he drags the name from his mouth, unhooks its fangs one by one inside his throat, until the words tumble from his lips in a grim confession.

“Orochimaru’s hideout.”

Chapter Text

They reach the hideout by sundown.

It sits hidden in the side of a mountain, a crevice so masked by landslides and underbrush that had Sasuke not been here before he would have never found it. Had he not had that cursed seal all those years ago, a direct line from himself to Orochimaru, he would have never made it into the old sanin’s clutches.

It’s a funny thought to entertain, what he would have been like without him, but not one that has any use dwelling upon. He learned that very quickly.

Naruto stands just behind him, nervous energy rolling off of him in wave after wave. His eyes glance furtively between Sasuke and the entrance, an unspoken question hovering in the air. “Is this really alright? Will you be ok?” He’s not really certain of the answer himself. He’s not sure he can give one.

He knows Naruto doesn’t like it. Sasuke can’t say he does much either.

But he needs to be here.

“We’ll camp here for the night,” he says firmly, and the question vanishes.

Throwing whatever hesitation he has left to the night breeze, he begins to duck inside, only to be stopped by the warmth of Naruto’s hand gripping his arm and pulling him back. “Wait.”


“Why don’t we camp… out here for the night?” Naruto’s gaze flits past him and into the dark depths of the cave, anxiety widening his eyes so that Sasuke is reminded once more just how deeply blue they really are.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” he teases lightly, knowing Naruto will rise to the taunt.

But he doesn’t. Instead he shakes his head gravely, and says, “We don’t know who or what’s in there, and it’s too dark to do a sweep right now. Let’s wait until morning and camp out here. At least that way we can see who’s coming a little better, you know?” He smiles nervously, hopefully, silently begging Sasuke to agree. He’s not ready for this.

Neither is he.

“Fine.” Stepping back from the entrance, Sasuke slings his bag off his shoulder and dumps it on the ground with an unceremonious thunk. The snake in his stomach coils tighter, more nervous, more angry, more restless. He can’t help but let the fury of its movement creep into his own.

They set up camp in silence, Sasuke locked in furious concentration while Naruto meticulously sets up his own bedroll, looking this way and that like a nervous rabbit at every noise. Dinner is just as quiet, only a few mumbled exchanges through mouthfuls of dried rations that stick to the roof of his mouth like sand. He wants a real dinner desperately, but in an area like this, fire seems too risky an option, so they opt for a cold dinner and then a colder good night.

The morning comes warmer than expected, and he finds its mostly due to a certain someone’s arm draped across him, like he’s a stuffed bear just a little too far out of reach to pull closer. He withdraws--trying not to think of all the nights as genin that he’d woken up to that same arm resting on his midriff and Kakashi ushering them awake before he could get away. Of Naruto’s horrified face and Sakura’s furious one.

He just wants to get this over with.

They eat breakfast in silence. Sasuke finds he does actually have to toss some of his stored food, various packages of broth and onigiri contaminated with river water. Their only exchange is a dirty look as he pointedly tosses a sopping ball of rice into a bush and Naruto’s nervous laugh. “Whoops?” he says.

They pack up.

Quickly, efficiently, without a word. The air feels thick as soup, not from any humidity, but more the anticipation. Sasuke has to wade through it just to get to the foot of the entrance. Naruto stands just behind him, warm, supportive, understanding in his silence.

It’s not that he’s anxious, that he’s afraid. There is no fear when he takes the first step, nor the second. No, he’s far more familiar with the emotions deep in his chest.



The first few steps down this corridor he’d ever taken had been as an adolescent, drowning in an anger so deep not even Naruto had been able to bring him back to the surface. If anything, he’d dragged Naruto into the depths with him. Kabuto had met him at the entrance, had lectured him in his arrogance, knowing full well that Sasuke had surpassed him in rank just by ringing the proverbial doorbell. Sasuke had known it too.

Now, the halls are quiet, carved serpents along the walls flickering to life with each step they take. He can’t help but raise a hesitant hand, press his fingers to the coolness of the stone. He’d spent nearly a year here, had once called these walls home. It feels strange to once again be here, to still be alive, after everything. After taking his vengeance… he’d had no plans but to be used up, swallowed by Orochimaru. Nothing had mattered beyond Itachi.


“Ah, Sasuke,” Naruto half-whispers, and the panic in his voice has Sasuke whirling to face him. “Sasuke, uh, what, what is uh…?” he trails off with a nervous laugh, pointing to the snake now curled around his leg. Its scales gleam in the torchlight, lifeless eyes fixed on Sasuke’s.

A trap.

“Naruto,” he says, doing his best to keep his voice as even as humanly possible. He raises his hand, slow and careful, chakra gathering in his fingertips. “Don’t move. This is a--”

Before, he can finish, the snake snaps forward, Naruto jerks with it, terrified, and then a low rumbling sounds, louder, and louder, and louder, until the din reverberates throughout Sasuke’s skull.

Everything past that is pure instinct. His hand reaches for Naruto’s, gripping it as tightly as he can, and they run. Run, run run, deep, deep, and deeper still into the hideout and far far away from the source of the rumbling, whatever horror it may be. Faster and faster, further and further, as deep into the caves as he dares, until at last neither of them can go any further. He pushes them into the nearest room, and there, under the cover of darkness, they sink into the floor.

“Whoops.” Naruto’s voice comes out breathlessly. Sasuke can just barely make out his sheepish grin, a soft white in the dimness.

“I said don’t move,” Sasuke gripes, the air harsh against his lungs, but there’s no edge to the accusation. He can only sigh in exhausted relief, closing his eyes as the pounding adrenaline in his head slows to a persistent pulse. Neither of them have a scratch to speak of, after all.

“You said that after I had already moved,” Naruto protests half-heartedly, lip jutting forward.

Sasuke shoots him a look that says just how much he cares (which is very little, especially because Naruto’s statement is so blatantly untrue), and then coughs as he feels his lungs desperately heave for air once again.

They sit like that together for what seems like hours, still in the darkness, the air colliding against their chests in smaller and smaller increments, until at last Sasuke can barely hear Naruto’s breath at all. The sound of the rumbling has long since faded, and they are left alone with the history and the silence.

“Where are we?” Naruto says at last, shifting to now face Sasuke.

“No idea. It’s too dark to make any sense of this place.” Slowly, he stands, deeply resenting the already setting ache in his legs, and resenting further still that his first thought had been to run. It might have been nothing at all, and even if it wasn’t, it was laughable to think that they, heirs to the chakra of Indra and Ashura, could be taken down.

A gentle light begins to expand throughout the room, small at first, and then brighter and brighter, until even the further corners are without shadow. The nine tail’s chakra flickers around Naruto, a beacon in the darkness. “How’s that?” he asks, smug.

“Too bright, idiot,” he says, but he takes the time all the same to observe the room. Or rather, he starts to, but stops as soon as he’s begun. The room is bare, hardly anything to speak of besides a bed in the corner and a small chest of drawers beside it. The only distinct part of the room is the walls, covered in divets and slashes, cracks and holes that he was intimately familiar with.

His face must say something, must have moved in a way that has Naruto jumping to his feet and rushing to stand that much closer. “Sasuke?”

“It’s my room,” he says after a moment’s silence, and he slowly moves to the cot in the far corner, the blankets tossed about exactly how he’d left them. The world seems surreal suddenly, so hazy that for a second Sasuke briefly wonders if they’ve been trapped in a genjutsu. But no, no--impossible. He would have seen through it, would have felt the residual chakra.

“Your room?” Naruto repeats.

He hums an affirmative, desperately trying to clear the sudden fog from his mind. Sasuke can feel his eyes burning into the back of his neck. And then the heat is gone, and from the corner of his vision, he can see Naruto tracing his fingers along the walls, along the cracks and holes that he had carved so deeply.

“You really did a number on the walls here, Sasuke,” he says, conversational.

“Not all are mine,” Sasuke says distractedly, and suddenly he has a deep desire to raid the room. “We trained in here… sometimes.”

“Huh? In your bedroom?

Sasuke hums another affirmative, focused moreso now on the chest of drawers. It had been a habit to leave behind everything when switching hideouts. It made it faster to travel, and he hadn’t been particularly attached to most of his belongings anyway. Were it not for the marks of his various battles, the room could hardly be called his.

“That seems…”

“Excessive?” Sasuke finishes. The drawers reveal nothing but expired pain medication (which he pockets) and old scrolls detailing various jutsus he’d been instructed to practice. This could be anyone’s room. Nothing stands out in the drawers. Nothing but the walls. “It was what Orochimaru thought would be best. It kept me alert.”

They lapse into silence again, Naruto’s contemplative and Sasuke’s far more focused and demanding. The room is barren, not even anything under his pillow for him to take, to see, to hold with his hand once more and experience adolescence once more.

“What else did you do here?” Naruto says after a moment. The question freezes Sasuke in his tracks, mid-blanket throw. The tone of his voice is wrong, a hesitation in those words, an accusation. An anger. Something in his chest pangs.

“I didn’t kill anyone for him, if that’s what you’re asking,” Sasuke snaps, turning to Naruto. “I never helped with his experiments, or any of that.

He’s met with a warm gaze. “Sasuke,” he says. “I already knew that.”


“You really think I’d hold that against you, even if you did?” Naruto continues, and once more Sasuke can feel himself being sucked into those eyes, deep into their core. “Even after everything?”

He can’t find the words to say, doesn’t even know how to say it perhaps, that no, obviously not, but that would be admitting to an unbroken bond, a concept that even now he still has trouble fathoming.

“I’m angry,” Naruto says in his stead. His voice trembles, chakra flickering all the brighter with it. “I’m angry that you felt forced into this corner, forced into this room. That you thought you had no other choice but to go with Orochimaru. That I had nothing to convince you otherwise, back then.” He inhales sharply, the tension in his clenched fists easing. “But I got you back. Even if it took three years… Orochimaru, this room… it’s behind us now.”

The smile he gives Sasuke is a gentle one--so brokenly gentle that he has to tear his gaze away, that or otherwise be overwhelmed in its tender embrace. He can’t go down the well that deep. No, not now.

“Not yet,” he says, and slowly, hesitantly, he kneels before his old bed, reaching under as Naruto watches, unsure and so obviously concerned. At a different time in his life, he would have been furious with Naruto for that. Resentful and angry, fearful that the concern in Naruto’s eyes only reflected the weakness in his own. But now… now, he’s not sure how he feels about it.

His fingers touch something square and wooden, and slowly, he pulls the small box out from under the bed. Still there, after all these years. His room after all.

“Sasuke?” Naruto says again, voice even softer still.

He opens the box. Inside rests a rusted kunai, dull from either years of disuse or perhaps the last few intense moments of battle that it had seen. Cradling it are the blue tatters of his clothing, the Uchiha crest sitting proudly in the center of the folded scraps. Blood still clings to the fabric, some his own, and some the blood of his one and only friend.

A hand rests on his shoulder, warmth suddenly flooding through his bones. “Sasuke,” Naruto says yet again. This time, there is no worry in his voice, no questioning, no fear, only a deep sadness. There’s an understanding in his voice, and Sasuke doesn’t have to to turn around to know the expression on Naruto’s face is one of recognition.

“You kept them?”

Sasuke nods. There aren’t words to explain why. Not even he is sure. After he had fought Naruto in the valley that first time, he’d shown up nearly in pieces on Orochimaru’s doorstep. He’d been given fresh clothes immediately, food, hot water… a lavish welcome for Orochimaru’s future vessel. But these… he’d never brought himself to toss them away, nor have them even cleaned. Instead he’d put them in a box and hidden them away under his bed. Perhaps a grim reminder of all that he had given up? Proof that the fight had cut so deep no one would dare to dream of taking him back.

Except someone did.

Naruto reaches over his shoulder, fingers just barely brushing the hilt of the kunai before Sasuke jerks it away. The reaction is automatic. He’s never been one for material attachments, but something inside him screams at the thought of disturbing what he had so carefully folded so many years ago.

That doesn’t stop Naruto from pouting at him though. “Hey,” he protests, brow furrowing deeper, “that was my kunai first, you know.”

“And you lost it,” Sasuke chides, but feels the stiffness in his shoulders ease anyway. Naruto reaches over him again, and gingerly removes the kunai from the box. It’s immediately absorbed into the aura of his chakra, a small blade in a wreath of brilliant flame. He flips it around in his hands for a moment, the familiarity and ease with which he does so a reflection of years of training, so different from his clumsy genin self.

“Heh, all this blood is mostly mine, huh?” he asks. The question is light-hearted, joking even, but it makes Sasuke wince all the same. Something in his chest bursts.

“Naruto--” he starts, except Naruto holds up a hand--his prosthetic--and stops him short.

“Sasuke,” he says. “Didn’t you say so yourself, that this is a journey to see the world with clear eyes? Right? You won’t be able to see anything if your vision gets clouded with regret.” His face cracks wide into a smile again, seriousness draining from his expression, and a small laugh slips from his chest. “Your eyes are for looking forward, not back, you know.”

The words rest heavy in the air, a truth that he thought he had long ago come to terms with, but Sasuke finds the corners of his lips turning upward to meet Naruto’s smile anyway. “For once,” he says, accepting the kunai back, “you have a point, idiot.”

“For once? For once?” Naruto squawks, and the moment is over. Carefully, Sasuke places the kunai back in the box, tucking it under the bed once more. He doesn’t need its reminder anymore. For now, he can lay this room to rest.